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We need to talk about fast fashion

April 12 2018

Hugo Hodge

Consultant

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By Isobel Hepworth 

The fast fashion business model of international clothing brands continues to fall behind societal expectations as it fails to uphold human rights and corporate social responsibility standards.

The fashion industry is widely reported to be the second highest polluting industry in the world, a fact highlighted by H&M’s recent admission of a gigantic back catalogue of unsold inventory valued at $4.3 billion. It’s wasteful to say the least.

While sustainability uptake has been on the increase within the food and agricultural sectors with the rise of organic foods and free-range meats, the fashion industry remains somewhat behind the curve.

This is despite a growing awareness of the darker side of fast fashion with popular documentaries True Cost of Fashion and War on Waste shedding light on troubling industry practices.

Brands like H&M have introduced initiatives such as the recycled textiles initiative and the H&M Conscious line. But is this enough? It is hard to ignore the reality that players in the textiles industry are often repeat offenders in the exploitation of cheap labour and violation of workers’ rights within developing countries.

While consumers and investors are increasingly holding brands to account, the question remains, why has the fashion industry not embraced sustainability measures to the same extent as other industries?

Human rights expert and Futureye associate Priya SaratChandran says despite consumer pushback, there is a conflicting demand for more readily available, cheaper clothing in shorter periods of time.

“For industry, there is an obvious commercial imperative to make money. However, industry cannot forget that businesses form part of the broader community and therefore their actions need to reflect broader community expectations,” said Ms. SaratChandran who recently spoke at a Global Fashion Exchange (GFX) event in Melbourne.

“It is also true that organisations often cannot handle their issues in isolation. While a desire may exist to be more transparent, there are often gaps of knowledge on how to take practical and effective action. These gaps will need to be addressed, particularly with the incoming Modern Slavery Act which will require a number of fashion brands to demonstrate their operations and supply chains are free from slavery” she said.

So what is the solution?

The industry needs to embrace sustainability as a core business priority, understand its supply chain obligations and test public opinion on where fashion’s responsibility starts and ends.

The fashion industry supply chain for the big fast fashion companies is vast and complex so a collaborative or industry-based approach may be required to ensure effectiveness.

According to Ms SaratChandran, one of the best ways to do this is to work collaboratively with NGOs and activists who are on the ground and already monitoring and measuring industry practices. Organisations like Ethical Clothes Australia have initiated projects to identify and provide accreditation for brands using sustainable practices and Greenpeace has begun advocating for the chemical free production of garments.

Societal perceptions towards clothing also needs to be measured. Industry needs to develop an understanding of the divergence between demand for ethically produced clothing and cheap fast clothing in order to identify what might be the trigger points that render their practices unacceptable in the eyes of society.

If the trend of the informed consumer continues, alongside increasing regulation, the tide will turn eventually and industry will need to make sure it is in a position.

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